Applauding the Saints

Jeremiah, portal of Moissac abbey on the Le Chemin de St. Jacques (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At least once in our lives we have dreamed of becoming saints… Stumbling under the weight of the contradictions of our lives, for a fleeting moment we glimpsed the possibility of building within ourselves a place of simplicity and light.

–– Carlo Caretto[i]

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentments? Did I forgive? Did I love?

–– Henri Nouwen[ii]

 

On the Feast of Pentecost in 2001, I attended the papal mass in the densely packed outdoor plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica. As the grand procession made its way toward the altar, the assembly began to applaud. While the sound of one hand clapping may induce a spiritual state, the sound of many hands can be jarring in a worship setting, at least for contemplatives. Pope Benedict XVI, never a happy-clappy man, called it “a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”[iii]

But Rome has a long tradition of applauding the pope as he enters for mass, and this day was no exception. However, this papal entrance was unique, for there were not one but two popes coming up the aisle––the reigning pontiff, John Paul II, but also the mortal remains of the beloved John XXIII as well. On the anniversary of his death (June 3), John’s body was being transferred from an underground crypt to a more public location under the altar of St. Jerome in the basilca’s central nave. But for the duration of the mass, it rested by the outdoor altar in full view of the assembly.

John XXIII died in 1963. When his original coffin was opened after 38 years, his body was found to be remarkably intact. It was dressed in red and white pontifical robes and placed in a glass coffin designed to block UV rays from the Roman sun. His face was protected by a wax mask, displaying the smile which had once dissolved the gloomy severity of a fortress church.

The living pope got his share of the applause, but the most affectionate attention was directed toward the “Good Pope John,” who would be canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2014. John’s humility, humor, and love of the poor were striking qualities in a pontiff, but he was best known for initiating the landmark reforms of Vatican II.

John XXIII famously said he wanted to “open the windows” of the Church so that fresh air could blow through its stuffy rooms. So it seemed to me a clear act of divine whimsy when a sudden gust of wind swept through St. Peter’s Square at that Pentecost mass, blowing the caps off the heads of cardinals as we chanted the Creed.

Ironically, John himself discouraged the custom of applauding him or any other pope in church. In templum Dei, he said, the focus should be on God, not ourselves. While we may want to celebrate the saintliness of exemplary persons, the true saint always deflects such praise. Not I, but Christ in me, they tell us.

This deflection is not an act of false humility. Saints are too busy chasing God or serving others to check their spiritual Fitbit. Saints never know that they are saints. They only know that something absolutely essential is calling them, and their life becomes the record of their response.

The first officially recognized Christian saints were the ancient martyrs, who took Christ’s “lose your life to find it” in the most literal sense. As Thomas Becket says in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the martyr is one “who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God––not lost it, but found it. . . . The martry no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.”[iv]

Although physical martyrdom is still a widespread occurrence around the world, self-sacrifice need not be lethal. Most people engage in some sacrificial practices for God or neighbor, but few of us take it as far as the asceticism so vividly imagined in Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names:

“Go naked in a scatter of ashes, stand in the burning sun. If there is a God, how could we fail to submit completely? Existence would be decrease, going clean. And adding beauty to the world, Kathryn might say. To her the spectacle had merit even if the source was obscure. They would be beautiful to see, leaning on staffs, mind-scorched, empty-eyed, men in the dust of India, moving to the endless name of God.”[v]

The late medieval mysticism of Marguerite of Porete was steeped in this kind of radical self-emptying. What she called the “annihilated soul” (âme aniente) has “neither what nor why”–– it wills nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing. Such utter evacuation of ego makes space for the Divine to dwell. The Soul, she said, “was created for nothing other than to have within the being of pure charity without end.”[vi] This was a forbidding, perhaps impossible spirituality.

Ecclesiastical authorities repeatedly warned Marguerite to stop circulating her troublesome ideas and writings. Nevertheless, she persisted. Certainly the outspokennes of a free-spirited woman was enough in itself to disconcert the male hierarchy. But the radical nature of her mystical spirituality seemed a very real threat to the stability of Christian community. Imagine a congregation of annihilated souls trying to manage the mundane duties of parish life. What happens when the church needs a new roof? What do they teach in Sunday School? Would a visitor feel welcome––or terror––at the liturgy?

Marguerite was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, “the earliest recorded death sentence for mystical heresy in Western Christianity.”[vii] While we abhor such an outcome, we may share the underlying concern about a spirituality of utter self-negation. Few of us are called to “go naked in a scatter of ashes.” If this life is a gift and not a prison, shouldn’t our spiritual practice affirm and embrace the blessings and epiphanies of embodied existence?

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right,” wrote 17th-century Anglican Thomas Traherne, “till evry Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys.”[viii] Traherne is miles from Marguerite of Porete, yet they both share the one thing common to all the saints. They turn their faces Godward.

“I ought therefore evermore . . . . to remember God, and aim at His Glory as my Supreme End. When I forget Him I walk in Darkness, when I aim at myself it is in vain Glory.”[ix]

Tomorrow is All Saints Day. We will remember and celebrate the great company of our ancestors and mentors in the blessing way. We will praise their godly qualities, be inspired by their examples, and take heart from the fact that they were and are “just folk like me”[x]––forgiven sinners, “stumbling under the weight of their contradictions” yet keeping their eyes on the prize.

Yes, we applaud their sanctity, but listen! Our applause is being drowned out by a mightier sound. The company of heaven returns the compliment. While we make our own stumbling way deeper and deeper into the Mystery, the saints are now applauding us.

 

 

Related post: For All the Saints

 

[i] Robert Ellsberg, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 29.

[ii] Ibid., 146-7.

[iii] Joseph Ratziner, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198.

[iv] Quoted in Martyrs: Contemporary Martyrs on Modern Lives of Faith (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 4-5.

[v] Don DeLillo, The Names (New York: Vintage, 1989), 92.

[vi] Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 78, 83.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations I.28-29, q. in Denise Inge, ed., Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2008), 125.

[ix] Ibid., Select Meditations III.75, in Inge, 262.

[x] Lesbia Scott, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

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Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

Guercino, "The Incredulity of Thomas" (1621)

Guercino, “The Incredulity of Thomas” (1621)

What we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands—
the Word of life— this is our theme . . .
We declare to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you too may share our life.    (I John 1:1,3)

The Easter Vigil is a night of wonders. Beginning after dark on Holy Saturday, God’s friends gather around a fire under the stars, as poets and singers, accompanied by the sounds of loon, whale and wolf, take us back to the beginning of time, when all things came to be. Then we follow the Paschal Candle, symbol of the risen Christ, into the Story Space to experience creative retellings of our sacred narratives, recalling God’s unfailing covenant with us throughout history. Theater, storytelling, music and multimedia immerse us in the rich play of Scriptural meanings. After that we process into the church, to the font of new birth, renewing our baptismal vows by candlelight. Suddenly, the contemplative quiet is broken by a great tumult of drums, bells, chimes (and sometimes fireworks!) as we welcome the first eucharist of Easter, sharing the feast of heaven with bread and champagne,and dancing our praises around God’s table.[i]

The Easter Vigil is the Christian dreamtime, the molten core of our worship life, but for those who missed it, who didn’t arrive at church until Easter morning, it exists only as a rumor of something quite out of the ordinary, hard to imagine after the fact. I could describe what happened in great detail, but a considerable amount of the joy and the wonder would be lost in the telling. Hearing about it is not the same as actually experiencing it.

Just ask Thomas the Doubter. He had missed out when the risen Christ first appeared to the other disciples.[ii] Oh Thomas, it was so amazing, so incredible! If only you had been there. “No way,” he says. “I just can’t see it. You must have been dreaming.” And so Thomas became known as the Doubter, and the Church made him patron saint of the blind. And yet, we always honor Thomas by telling this story on the Second Sunday of Easter, as if to say,

We welcome those who take questions seriously;
we believe that faith and doubt must dance together;
we are in fact a community of those
who wrestle with God’s absences
as well as God’s presences.

Another Thomas, the 20th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, wrote a poem about this gospel story:

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.[iii]

The sense of belatedness, of arriving too late, haunts every religious tradition whose foundations lie in definitive past events. Even Jesus’ closest friends, who had shared a last supper with him just days before, felt the warmth of his presence quickly cooling into memory.

But then they discovered that Christ does not come to us out of the past, locked within well-worn expectations. The risen One comes out of the future, often in a form we don’t expect: the stranger, the other, the outcast, even the enemy. If we only look for Jesus in the vacated tombs of past experience, we will get the admonishing angel: “He is not here. He’s already waiting for you somewhere else. Go and see.”

For a while after the resurrection of Jesus, there were sensory appearances in a form the disciples could recognize and relate to in the old familiar ways. They spoke with him. They ate with him. They experienced his peace. And their primal witness remains vital. A positive identification of the risen One as the same person who died on the cross was essential to the core Easter message: Jesus lives! Not a memory, substitute, or simulacrum, but a continuing presence which not even death could kill.

These appearances eventually ceased, but before they did, Thomas finally got his moment with the Jesus he had known. It blew away his doubts and drove him to his knees. But then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” And later he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not limited to the personal experiences of a few first century people. If that were the case, then it would be something we could only hear about later but never experience for ourselves. Like Thomas before his late encounter, we would have only Christ’s absence.

But the Easter faith affirms the continuing presence of the living Christ among us, now and always. That presence is not always clear or obvious. Even the saints wrestle with doubt and absence. Sometimes divinity seems to withdraw for a time. Sometimes it is we who are absent— distracted, inattentive, looking in the wrong place, using the wrong language. Divine presence can’t be switched on, or grasped possessively. It is elusive. It is fond of surprise.

But we are not left without clues. Jesus tells us, “If you want to keep experiencing me, love one another. Forgive one another.”[iv] Thus we meet the risen Christ in the life of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, love. Where love and charity abound, there God is, there Christ is. It’s not enough to proclaim resurrection. We need to embody it.

As Rowan Williams explains: “the believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement.”[v]

The Book of Acts tells us the first believers made their common life a “laboratory of the resurrection”[vi]— not just a theological mystery but a daily practice, rejecting the economics of selfishness and scarcity for radical acts of generosity and compassion. Their belief was a practice of entrusting themselves to the renewing force of divine love that is never exhausted by the sufferings of the world. In other words, resurrections have consequences.

These are large claims, of course, and not universally embraced. But for me resurrection’s greatest challenge is not that I am being asked to believe something difficult; it is that I am being asked to do something difficult:

to be utterly transformed by immersion into the dying-and-rising of Christ,
to become my baptismal self,
to cast off the rags of ego and fear
and be clothed in “garments of indescribable light.”[vii]

It’s not intellectual or empirical doubt that makes me hesitate at the threshold of the risen life. It’s not that I think such transformation to be impossible. No, for countless saints have already demonstrated its possibility. My doubt concerns myself. Am I up to it?

Have you ever stood on a rock
twenty feet above the surface
of an icy mountain lake?
The summer day is hot;
you know the water will refresh you.
You are caked with grime and sweat from hours of hiking.
It will feel so good to wash it all away.

You imagine the explosive energy of the splash,
the exhilarating shock of glacial waters.
And you anticipate the joy of swimming,
the bliss of weightlessness
setting you free from the gravity of things.

But you hesitate.
You doubt.
The water is dark.
Are there rocks beneath the surface?
Will the sudden cold take your breath away?
The very act of stepping out into nothing
is resisted by an inner voice of self-preservation.

There’s no way to stop the mind’s questions or the body’s fears.
They persist for as long as you stand there.
The lake doesn’t get any warmer.
The boulder doesn’t get any lower.

Then you just lean out into space
and let yourself go.

 

 

Related Posts

Just a dream? Reflection on the Easter Vigil

Christ is risen!

 

[i] Although most Easter Vigils don’t happen quite this way, they can, and (IMHO) should. I have been curating them this way for several decades in various worship communities, and I believe that such a rich interplay of ritual and the arts, engaging all the senses in a multigenerational, visionary happening, at once contemplative, playful, and ecstatic, does true justice to our celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the passage from darkness and death into the risen life..

[ii] John 20:24-29

[iii] R.S. Thomas, “Via Negativa,” Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1995), 220

[iv] My gloss on the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel (John 14-17)

[v] Rowan Williams, Resurrection (New York: The Pilgrim Press NY, 1984), 62-3

[vi] Dumitru Staniloae, q. in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 82

[vii] Pseudo-Macarius (desert father, c. 400, Mesopotamia/Asia Minor) First Homily

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

image

The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

– Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 (Lectionary reading for All Saints)

At the far end of the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, four “martyrs” perform a perpetual sacrifice in a slow-motion passage from suffering to glory. These martyrs are not the painted or sculptured figures of a traditional altarpiece, but two men and two women, recorded on high-definition video, and played back continuously on a polyptych of four adjacent vertical plasma panels, each 55” x 33.”

This stunning work is by Bill Viola, who has long been exploring the interplay of “technology and revelation.”[i] As David Morgan has written, “Viola’s work suggests that the human condition consists of the fact that we are embodied beings yearning, but ill-prepared, for communion with one another; that we suffer pain and loss, that we struggle to transcend our bodies and our suffering by connecting with a larger or inner aspect of reality; and that we die. Bodies, communion, suffering, transcendence, and death collectively constitute a condition, a worldview that the artist seeks to investigate in his work.”[ii]

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St. Paul’s in 2014, and this week I had my first chance to see it. It is 7.5 minutes long, continuously repeated. Mesmerized and deeply moved, I watched it ten times, and each viewing provoked some new thought or feeling.

The figures begin in stasis, undergo an ordeal involving time and motion, and finally come to rest in a perfect stillness: not the anti-life of death or nonbeing, but something implicitly wondrous.

All the figures are facing in our direction. In the first panel, a kneeling man, head bowed to the floor, is almost completely buried beneath a triangular pile of dirt. We only see the top of his head, clutched by his two tense hands. The dirt begins to fly upward in a column, disappearing into whatever is above the frame. He rises to his feet, ever so slowly, as if it is a great struggle against gravity, or stasis. By the time he is upright, the last of the dirt has vanished into the “above,” and he is staring out at us impassively.

In the second panel, a woman in a white shift is suspended by a rope tied to her wrists. Her feet are anchored two feet above the ground by another rope securing her ankles. She is blown by a great wind coming from the left, buffeted back and forth within the constraint of her tethers, at the mercy of a relentless exterior force. After a while, the wind subsides, her suspended body grows still, and she gazes out with an unexpected measure of serenity.

A black man sits in a chair in the next panel, his head tilted to the side and downcast. Then bits of flame begin to drop from above, continuing to burn where they land. More and more flames fall, some leaving trails like shooting stars, until the whole floor, and the chair, are on fire. By this time the man has raised his head to look out at us, but he appears calm and still even as the flames envelop him. He remains in that position as the flames finally relent and die out.

In the last panel, a man is curled up in a fetal position with eyes closed. A rope tied to his angles is suspended from somewhere above the frame. The slack starts to be taken up, pulling his legs upward, and then his entire body, until he is completely upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot, or one of those skinned animals dangling in a Dutch genre painting as a secularized image of Christ’s Passion. When a stream of water begins to fall from above, his arms slowly stir, moving into a prayer position, bent 90 degrees at the elbow, then gradually sweeping backward, like a swimmer’s breaststroke, until they are near his side. Meanwhile, his inverted body begins to be pulled upward by the rope, toward the source of the falling water.

All of the figures have been handed over to forces or situations beyond their control. One buried, one bound and buffeted, one burned, and one left for dead. Yet none of them rages or resists. They accept their condition with a calm grounded in something greater than their own survival.

Each of the first three, after gazing out at us for a time, gradually shift their attention to whatever is above them, out of our sight, until their upturned faces glow with the light of eschatalogical radiance. Their faces never become expressive, or call attention to their own personalities; they remain still and quiet, in a condition of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iii]

The fourth figure, the “Hanged Man,” provides the dissonant harmony within this suite of images. He is the one who appeared already dead, his suffering behind him. His eyes, either closed or obscured by the water streaming down his face, are never quite visible. Although his arms eventually make hopeful gestures of prayer or embrace, the rest of his body stays limp, totally given over to the power at the other end of the rope, which pulls him up and out of the frame. The water continues to fall when he is gone.

Unlike the prayerful final images of the other panels, the fourth is fraught with absence. The other martyrs only gaze at the transcendent. The fourth has already ascended there, and we are left with only the water as a reminder of the one we can no longer see.

Noting that martyr means “witness,” an accompanying statement by Viola and his producer Kira Perov compares the active witness of martyrs to the passive witness of those who merely consume images of suffering through mass media, adding that these four figures “exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.”[iv]

But these evocative images can’t be reduced to a single meaning. The more I watched, the more meanings and associations were generated. The first figure suggested Adam formed from the mud, or Christ rising from his grave, shedding mortality clump by clump. It also seemed a kind of birth.

The strongly sidelit second figure, whose white shift and platinum hair glowed against the black background like a Zurburan crucifixion, mirrored both Jesus and Joan of Arc.

Like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.[v] The fire in the third panel not only recalled the light of burning martyrs, but the positive biblical tropes of the refiner’s fire and tongues of flame.

The fetal position of the fourth martyr evoked both the womb and the grave. The falling water made me think of both baptism and waterboarding. Once he was gone, however, it spoke to me of both memory and promise: what had happened to him, and what might happen to us.

Just what – or who – is at the other end of that rope anyway?

[i] “Technology and Revelation” is the title of a lecture I heard Viola give at the University of California at Berkeley, September 28, 2009.

[ii] David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium: The Video Art of Bill Viola,” Image, No. 26 ((Spring 2000), 32

[iii] This was Simone Weil’s definition of prayer.

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

Cave of the Apocalypse

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian


I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice saying, ‘Write in a book what you see …’    (Rev. 1:9-11)

Patmos is one of the smaller Dodecanese Islands, a grueling 8-hour middle-of-the-night ferry ride east of Athens. It has gorgeous bays and quiet beaches, superb mountain views, charming villages and, at least not in summer’s high season, a tranquil predominance of locals over tourists. The outsiders I have met are themselves “regulars,” returning again and again because they love it. Yesterday a man from the Netherlands told me this was his 23rd straight year of month-long visits.

Patmos is also a place of pilgrimage, where St. John the Theologian (or “the Divine,” as we say in the western church), fell into a swoon and saw things which have intrigued, puzzled, disturbed and inspired readers ever since. The Book of Revelation has, regretfully, provided horrific weapons of mass destruction for hellfire preachers, but it is also the source for many sublime hymns and prayers in my own Anglican tradition.

Most scholars think that the book’s author is not the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Language, style and themes are too different in the two works. But “tradition” has always preferred to link the Galilean fisherman “whom Jesus loved” with both the mystical composer of the Fourth Gospel and the visionary exiled to Patmos. It exemplifies the arc of discipleship as potentially a long, strange trip. As we sang in a hymn at my own ordination years ago, “the peace of God, it is no peace … Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died; Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.”

So the Christian can’t come to Patmos and simply lie on the beach or relax in the taverna. The Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian beckons from the high ridge above the  port. Its dark-hued fortress of lion-colored stone makes somber contrast with the whitewashed village around it, as if to say that the ascent of this hill is serious business.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

If you rise early, you can experience the awesome richness of the monastery’s Katholikon (main church) in solitude. The brilliant wall paintings, recently cleaned, immerse you in holy images. Along with the intricately carved iconostasis, hanging oil lamps, and numerous icons, they effect a ceaseless engagement of the eye. Some might find this distracting for prayer, but for me the sense that there is always more than I can take in – the visual inexhaustibility of Orthodox interiors – can lead to a kind of surrender, overwhelming and transcending the subjectivity of my own thoughts and perceptions. Here is Mystery. Give over to it. Lose yourself in it.

The monastery museum holds an eclectic assortment of treasures, including a 6th century gospel book, a 1499 Venetian collection of Aristophanes’ comedies, a 6th century BC bust of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy), the largest Orthodox collection of 5th-6th century Coptic textiles, preserved by the dryness of Egyptian tombs, and a police blotter in Arabic from the late 15th century, when Byzantine territories had fallen under Muslim control (“The Cadi [Judge] of the Palace is ordered to find three Patmians who were kidnapped by pirates.”).

Below the monastery, halfway up the hill from the sea, is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Here, according to tradition, John lay on the stone floor for several days while the vision unfolded. The cave is not large, but the insertion of a wooden iconostasis into its contours, along with icons and hanging lamps, has made it a compelling place for worship, prayer and veneration. John’s private ecstasy has been reimagined through specific features of the cave. Here is the cleft from which the Voice spoke. Here is the corner when he laid his head to rest between revelations. Here are the fissures where the Trinitarian God divided the rock into three parts with an earthquake.

Literal belief in the details of the cave’s legends is not required to make the site holy. It is holy because centuries of believers have given a particular kind of attention here to a Reality which yearns to make itself known in the innermost heart, for which a sheltering, enclosing cave is a tangible, sensory analogy.

Another mystical theologian, St. Bonaventure, said, “When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with your Beloved, forgetting all exterior concerns.” The Cave, for the attentive, can mirror the chamber of the heart.

I entered it three times during my week here. The first time was the Sunday liturgy, full of incense and chanting voices. It was beautiful, but I had no revelations, or even deep feelings. God was present, but I was a bit absent. I was tired from a long, sleepless ferry ride. And I knew that whatever the Cave offered was not a tourist experience you can just walk in and collect.

So I went back a few days later. The voices I heard then were those of tour guides. Most just reeled off the legends uncritically as if they were prosaic facts. Here this and that happened, blah blah blah, now let’s go back to the bus. But one guide, a Greek woman speaking both in English and German, really got into it.

“People think that the Book of Revelation is about judgment and punishment. That is there, of course, but by the time you get to Chapter 21, you find what it is really about: a new world, a new heaven, a new earth, where we will be with God, and God with us.

“John’s message is trying to wake us up, to make us see that we are all one because God is with us and in us. Our original condition of oneness will be restored in the end. We lost that unity in the beginning because we had free will, and we chose to have our own experience, and forgot our connection with one another.

“If a bomb falls on someone in Syria, we think, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ But what happens to others happens to all of us. John is trying to wake us up to this. And when he talks about the destruction of the earth, we have to think about how much closer we ourselves are to bringing that about today, unless we remember what we were made for and what we are a part of.”

When I thanked her afterward for her ‘preaching,’ she said, “I want to tell people what they don’t know, what they don’t hear in the schools, what the priests won’t tell you.” She was pretty sour on the institutional church. “I was baptized Greek Orthodox. I believe in Christ and the power of the sacraments, but I don’t belong to any church. I’m kind of a revolutionary.” I asked her name. “Vera,” she said. “Like veritas– the truth.”

This morning, my last on Patmos, I returned to the Cave for a third time. Two cantors and a priest were chanting the Divine Liturgy. I was the only other person present. This time, the spirit of prayer came easily, like a morning breeze. I received no visions, heard no voices except the beautiful earthly ones I stood among. But it was more than enough. When the priest handed out the holy bread at the end, I was aware of my outsider status as non-Orthodox. But the priest, who had the face of a Baroque Apostle, turned to me with a slight nod. And so I ate the bread of heaven, and departed well satisfied.

For all the saints

Fra Angelico saints

Dorothy Day, the feisty co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has been called the most interesting and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism. Deeply nourished by a discipline of liturgy and prayer, she devoted her life not only to serving the poor on a daily basis, but also to challenging the very forces that create poverty in the first place. She was a pacifist and activist who sometimes practiced civil disobedience to resist militarism. racism and systemic greed. For her faithful witness to the way of Jesus, she was investigated, jailed, and even shot at. Basically, she understood that the Christian life not only produces thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; it also produces actions that make a difference. It produces people who make a difference.

But “don’t call me a saint,” she warned. “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you’re not to be taken seriously.”

The same sort of neglect has been applied to the Beatitudes, and all the other teachings of Jesus: they are dismissed as unattainable ideals rather than guides to the way we might actually live our lives.

And what do you say? Is it enough for the friends of Jesus, the friends of God, to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the great athletes of sanctity whom we ourselves could never hope to imitate? Or is it about time for the rest of us to get in the game?

When we gather for worship, we may be consoled, we may be inspired, we may be refreshed. Sometimes some of those things happen, sometimes all of them happen, sometimes none of them happen.

But what always happens is, God speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, and then sends us out into the world with an assignment: to do the work we have been given to do.

So what exactly is our assignment, on this Feast of All Saints, 2014? It’s right there in the gospel. First of all, Jesus says, you need to turn the world’s values upside down. You need to look at everything in a new way.

The poor will be blessed with the gift of the kingdom,
while the rich will have to learn the hard way that life can’t be owned.

Everyone who weeps will find out what grace and comfort mean,
while those who are smug and self-satisfied
will be unable to grasp their deepest need.

And if you are marginalized and scorned because you follow me, says Jesus,
you are in such good company,
for that is exactly how the saints were treated.

Jesus never gives easy assignments. Discipleship isn’t kindergarten. It’s graduate school. And if you want to get your PhD, here’s the deal:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone needs something, give it to them;
and if anyone should relieve you of your attachments,
don’t make a fuss.
Just let it all go.

When Jesus says such things, is he really talking to us? The saints have always thought so, and they have responded accordingly.

So many of their biographies begin with them giving all their money to the poor, and then the rest of the story tells how they keep giving themselves away to God. Saints are the ones whose discipleship knows no limits. They can seem extravagant, immoderate, audacious, even a little weird.

Risking everything. Pouring out everything. Holding nothing back.
Trusting completely the One they follow, even when the way is rough and steep.
No longer looking out for number one,
but giving themselves away in works of love and mercy.

And you mean to be one too, don’t you?

You never know when you’re going to get the call. It could come in a sudden flash of revelation, or it could come on the freeway when someone cuts you off and you must decide whether to respond with anger or with love.

But when the call does come, you know what to say.
People in the Bible said it all the time.
The saints said it all the time.
Here I am.

Here I am. At your disposal. Your will be done.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how the call came to him: “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” After that, King said, “I was ready to face anything.”

And some of you will remember Dag Hammarskjöld, elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, who was a tireless worker for world peace. In 1961 he died in a plane crash on his way to deal with a crisis in Africa, and it was only after his death that the world learned that he was not just a famous and effective public figure, but a Christian mystic as well, with a profound and faithful inner life.

Hammarskjöld wrote this about his own call:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I do not know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Most of us don’t get such a definitive summons. Sometimes it comes as gradually as the dawn, making its way slowly into our awareness. But wherever we are in that process of awakening, we are being called every day, every hour, to sanctify the moment with a word or an action that makes God visible to others, and plants another seed of resurrection in the soil of ordinary time.

It doesn’t always have to be extraordinary or monumental. Henri Nouwen, in a short list of questions, shows just how simple the work of a saint can be:

Did I offer peace today?
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?
Did I say words of healing?
Did I let go of my anger and resentments?
Did I forgive?
Did I love?

But you may be thinking: What’s it going to cost me to follow Jesus?
Well, that’s the tricky part. It will cost no less than everything.
But it will also bring perfect joy.

Whatever saints need to give up, whatever their ordeals, whatever their sufferings, saints are not, by and large, a gloomy lot. Even under the most extreme duress, they manage to sound a note of joy.

Sheila Cassidy, a British physician, forged a striking image for this saintly joy in her own experience in a Chilean prison in the 1970’s. She had been imprisoned for treating a wounded revolutionary, and for a while she was tortured. When the torture finally stopped, and she was able to collect herself, her first impulse was to scream out to God for deliverance, begging to be released.

But then another response rose up in her. In her words, it was “to hold out my empty hands to God, not in supplication, but in offering. I would say, not ‘Please let me out’ but ‘Here I am, Lord, take me. I trust you. Do with me what you will….’ In my powerlessness and captivity there remained to me one freedom: I could abandon myself into the hands of God.”

And the image that emerged for her from that moment was of a bird in a cage, which could either “exhaust itself battering its wings against the bars, or else learn to live within the confines of its prison, and find, to its surprise, that it has the strength to sing.”

And how does it go – the song of the caged bird?
I believe it sounds something like this:

I see God in … the marks of … love in every visible thing and it sometimes happens that I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.

These are the words of a Dutch priest. He wrote them in the concentration camp at Dachau, before he was killed for preaching in defense of the Jews. Such profound joy under duress is not unique among the friends of Jesus. Saints and martyrs have sung this song in every age. Even in the hour of trial, even at the brink of the grave, they have sung this song, because they knew the secret.

They knew that beneath everything, within everything, beyond everything,
there is a Love which is stronger than suffering,
stronger than evil, stronger than death.
It has brought all things into being
It sustains us on our journey
It will guide us safely home.

This Love calls us in every moment – indeed, it is calling right here, right now – to follow, to serve, to embody, to manifest, to surrender. All the saints before us said yes to this call, over and over again. And they are cheering us on to do the same.

Will you say yes to Jesus, yes to God?
Will you stand with the saints today?
Will you join their song?
Will you share their work?
Will you bear their sacrifice?
Will you embrace their perfect joy?